Sometimes it can be hard to see what practical value might lie in a particular line of theological inquiry — or even a theological education as a whole. Which is why I was heartened to read Hannah Arendt’s observation (in The Human Condition) that the great scientific and technological advances of modernity didn’t originate in the quest for pragmatic pay-off but ‘exclusively in an altogether non-practical search for useless knowledge’.
Think of the watch. Rather than being the brainchild of some bureaucrat wanting to make sure the trains ran on time (or that Brad Pitt’s wrist looked really really good), it was invented by scientists to help them conduct their experiments and figure out how stuff worked. Despite its highly impractical roots, however, the invention of the watch has borne much pragmatic fruit.
Miroslav Volf’s book Free of Charge has helped me see how something similar could be true of the four year investment I (and my wife and the Australian Government etc) have made in my theological education.
How so? The subtitle’s the hint: giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace. As this might lead you to suspect, the book falls into two halves. The first half explains and illustrates — in remarkably clear, accessible, sensitive and well-grounded language — how we can and should give as God gives. The second, how we can and should forgive as God forgives.
This is all massively practical — especially in a culture in which having and taking and selling are far more common than giving. What’s more, Volf weaves his own personal stories of giving and receiving (his wife and he received the gift of an adoptive child — twice over) as well as forgiving (he grew up in the Balkans — enough said) through it throughout.
But the real beauty of Free of Charge (in my book at least) is the way I would turn almost every page and recognise yet another piece of theology I’d tried to wrap my head around at some point in my studies. It’s all there: the Trinity, the doctrine of creation, the atonement, justification and union with Christ, the last things. Debates about them may appear involved and fruitless. But in Volf’s hands they yield profound insights about generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation.
If all this isn’t enough recommendation for this magnificent book, I’ll let Volf himself have the last word:
[O]n one level, the book examines how to conceive of and live out two basic human practices, giving and forgiving. On another level, however, the two practices, as Christianity understands them, are a particular sort of lens through which we can survey the whole landscape of the Christian faith from a fresh vantage point. And since I write here as an advocate of the faith, this book is an invitation to Christian faith.
Go on. Add it to your holiday reading list. Read it. And pass it on!